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Camping tough in minus-21 degrees

Somerset Boy Scout Troop 144 camped outside in minus-21 degree weather to earn Zero Hero patches on Jan. 3-5. (Standing, from left) Assistant Scoutmaster Mary William, Jake Wittstock, Glenn Coerber, Snow Base guide and Eagle Scout Tracen Vail, Cole Erickson, Will Scheder, Andrew Williams and Scoutmaster Peter Johnson. (Sitting/kneeling, from left) Brady Williams, Johnnie Johnson, Connor Darrow, Sam Koeller, Ben Schmitt and Sepp Swanson. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
One of Troop 144’s quinzhees that they built and slept in. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Most people don’t want to go outside when the temperature dips below zero, let alone go camping in a hollowed out snowbank.

Tell that to Somerset Boy Scout Troop 144, led by Scoutmaster Peter Johnson.

They wanted to earn their Zero Hero patches and earn them they did, Johnson said.

“I think they should have earned a patch for every degree below zero,” Johnson said. “That would have been 21 patches each.”

Eleven Boy Scouts went to Tomahawk Scout Reservation near Birchwood Jan. 3-5, along with two adult leaders and a guide provided by the camp. The camping program, called Snow-Base, teaches boys how to develop outdoor leadership and survival skills in conjunction with cross-country skiing, ice wall climbing, winter cooking, snowshoeing and winter shelter building.

The first night, everyone stayed in cabins, Johnson said. The next morning, the boys dressed in several winter layers of thermal wear and wool. They wore Arctic Sorel boots and Black Diamond wool-lined gloves, rated to minus-50 degrees.

Once properly dressed and briefed on what to expect, the boys and leaders gathered their gear and hiked one mile to Finger Lake, off of Long Lake.

The boys’ first agenda item was to build their sleeping shelters, called quinzhees. Quinzhees are built out of hollowed out snow piles, while igloos are built from hard snow bricks. They are short-term shelters, while igloos can last an entire season.

Johnson said the boys had to pile the snow on a flat area, six to 10 feet high and eight feet in diameter. After the snow piles settled for two to six hours, the boys hollowed them out.

Even though the wind and air was bitterly cold, the temperature inside the quinzhees goes up dramatically once they’re built, Johnson said.

“The body heat alone raises the temp to 20 to 25 degrees inside, plus the boys are in minus-40 degree sleeping bags,” Johnson said. “We knew we had enough skilled and trained people involved. The people at the camp are very thorough. We felt confident we could do this.”

Before the boys settled in for the night, they skied, hiked, cooked and did many physical activities to get their blood pumping. They ate mostly soups and pre-packaged food that was easy to prepare.

Johnson said the adults checked on the kids through the night to make sure they were fine.

“They did an awesome job,” Johnson said. “These outdoor settings are used to build collaborative efforts, leadership and confidence to accomplish these types of goals. Some kids thought it was the greatest thing ever. Some not so much, but nobody was disappointed. It was cold but no one lost any digits.”

Johnson said his hands suffered some frostbite while trying to get the white gas cookstoves going in the morning.

“Everyone was fine until they came out,” Johnson said. “We realized this was really cold. We took a lot of walks in the morning to get going. When we got back to base camp we had cocoa and lasagna.”

Johnson said the parents gave the outing their blessing because they knew the kids were in a safe environment.

“They were really proud of their kids,” Johnson said. “For at least a third of them, this was their first time camping at all without their family.”

Johnson said this group of boys had never winter camped before, but he has taken other groups on these excursions in his seven years as a Scout leader and plans to continue.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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